I looked at the sunlight streaming through the blinds. Another sleepless night. I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had to meet with my client this morning, locked up on a moving violation. I forced myself to sit up. I sat thinking for a moment. How much longer can I do this? How low have I sunk?
My name is Alex Jansen. Before I went into private practice to make money I was a public defender; performing a public service. For five years I successfully defended the poor and oppressed who really needed help. People caught between a rock and a hard place with no where to turn. Had I forgotten why I became a lawyer in the first place?
I thought about Brad and then I remembered. Growing up poor, our family struggled to make ends meet. When I was 12 years old my older brother Brad found a way to make some easy money to help support our family.
It seemed harmless enough. All he had to do was deliver some packages a few times a week. But then he was arrested and sent to jail.
Brad never knew what was in those packages. At least that is what he told me.
The District Attorney met with Brad and the Public Defender assigned to his case. He told them Brad had been a courier for a major criminal, delivering packages of drugs and sometimes cash. The DA wasn’t really interested in prosecuting Brad so he made a deal with him and his Public Defender that if he flipped on the source of the packages he would get probation and serve no time.
But the PD assigned to his case was so inept he couldn't even arrange bail for Brad. With no criminal record and having family roots in the area, low bail should have been a no-brainer. So while Brad was sitting in jail awaiting trial, word leaked out that he was going to sing like a bird.
Two days later, the guards found him lying in a pool of blood in his cell, dead at 18. Stabbed through the heart. We never knew what really happened. No one was held accountable for his death, not even his cellmate. And we were too poor to hire a lawyer to help find out what happened. The only thing my parents could surmise was that he had been found out as a snitch and was killed.
I was enraged. I don’t think I ever went through all the stages of grief because the white, hot anger never left me. I was helpless and my rage was the only thing I could hold onto to keep him alive in my memory. I was a kid and could do nothing to help Brad now, but in my anger I decided I had to do something. I swore I would find a way to help others so this wouldn’t happen to them.. I became a lawyer, a Public Defender, to help the poor and downtrodden to the best of my ability.
But now I couldn’t even look in the mirror. It made me sick to see what I'd become. I thought about how low I’d sunk and why I sold out in the first place.
As a public defender my passion and work ethic had sharpened my legal skills to the point of where I became the bright, shining star in the office; successfully adjudicating every case that landed on my desk. Whether it was an outright win or a deal, the case resolved in my clients’ favor every time.
Although I had a heart for the poor who were suffering and struggling, the years of grinding away had taken its toll. I grew weary of the fight: the long hours, low pay, and constant exposure to the indigent and their hard luck tales. But as my reputation grew so did my ego. And when the big law firms came calling, I felt I deserved a step up.
I rationalized I had put in the time and now I could reap the rewards. And with a big salary at a pricey law firm I could send money to my parents to lift them out of their poverty.
I had worked for Stratton, Boggess, and Randolph for three years. I had continued my high success rate of getting clients off or making deals to get probation. And in the process made a lot of money. But now I couldn’t sleep at night. I had defended all kinds of high net worth lowlifes and my conscience wouldn’t leave me alone.
In retrospect, I suppose I was a victim of my own success. I had performed so well for so long that the partners assigned me to the most vicious criminal I had ever encountered: the drug dealer Romeo Zane.
I had just arrived for my meeting in the jail house with Romeo. He had been arrested on a moving violation. But that was a pretext to search his car and home, and charge him with more serious crimes: drug dealing and murder.
Purportedly, Romeo was a legitimate businessman. But after I learned of the new charges brought forth I suspected something was awry. I walked into the meeting with Romeo and the second I saw him a chill went up my spine.
I had crossed paths with so many criminal offenders over the years I developed a visceral barometer whenever I encountered someone...and the needle spiked hard in the red when I first laid eyes on Romeo.
Romeo exuded evil like vapor rising off the hot pavement after a rain.
I was defending the worst of the worst. Something had to give.
I was able to get Romeo out on bond the next morning for one million dollars. As he left the courthouse we agreed to meet the next morning to discuss his case.
I went back to my office and began to research any case files and arrest reports in Romeo’s past. I had searched through and read most of it when I came across something that made the hairs on my neck stand up.
The next morning my phone rang. I answered, “Hello?”
A deep baritone came on the line. “Hello, is this Alex Jansen?”
I answered, “Yes? Who is this?”
“I’m Detective Truck Jones with homicide. I need to speak with you about your client Romeo Zane.”
I took a deep breath. “What does this concern?”
“It would be better if you came down to the station, sir. When can you meet me at the First precinct?”
“I’ll be there in an hour, detective.” I hung up the phone.
I walked into the station and approached the desk sergeant. “Hi, I’m Alex Jansen. A lawyer with Stratton, Boggess, and Randolph. I’m here to meet Detective Jones?”
The desk sergeant nodded. He picked up the phone and pressed a button. “Hey Truck, an Alex Jansen is here to see you.” He paused a moment. “OK. I’ll take him in.” He hung up the phone.
He nodded toward me and said, “I’ll just take you over to one of our rooms over here. Give you two some privacy.” He winked and smiled.
I sat down and moments later Detective Jones walked in. Smiling, he said, “I thought it might be better to meet in here. Too much chaos in the squad room right now. Much quieter in here. Can I offer you some coffee?”
I shook my head. “Detective, what is this about?”
He sat down and looked my squarely in the eye. “We had a warrant to search Romeo Zanes’ apartment this morning. When we got there, the door was open and we found your client dead on the kitchen floor” He paused, gaging my reaction.
I wiped my hand over my mouth. “Oh, wow. That’s terrible. How did you know to contact me?”
“Your business card was on the kitchen counter. You care to explain.”
“I’m his attorney. Why else would he have it?”
The detective leaned back and crossed his arms. “You probably don’t remember me? We crossed paths in court several times, back when you were a public defender.”
I nodded. “Yes, I remember you.”
The detective said, "I remember the zeal with which you defended people. Almost as though it was personal. Like you were defending a family member or close personal friend. I noticed how you interacted with your clients. Having that passion to help those in need, then selling out to a big law firm, seeing dollar signs. Now you defend the scum of the earth. Not quite the same is it? I’ve seen it before. A PD attorney burns out and goes looking for greener pastures. I suppose the guilt and shame just ate at you, didn't it?”
I stared at the detective, stone faced.
The detective continued, "We checked your bank accounts and saw you made large donations to various charities in the last year. Then, you had to defend Romeo Zane, the devil himself and that was the straw that broke the camels back. Wasn’t it?
“You could bear no more and took matters into your own hands. You decided to become a vigilante public defender. Defending the public from the evils of Romeo Zane.”
The detective paused, searching my face for some sort of response. None came.
“We know it was you. We’ve seen the footage from the security cameras. You were the only one entering and leaving his condo, until we showed up the next morning.”
I finally relented. “Wow, you are good, detective. All those things add up to a grand narrative and certainly makes sense of what happened. There is only one problem. That isn’t why he is dead.”
The detective lowered his eyebrows in a puzzled look and leaned in. “So then tell me what happened. Why is he dead?”
I let out a deep sigh. “He murdered my brother eighteen years ago.”
The detectives head tilted forward, seemingly thrown off, but just for a moment. He composed himself and said, “Please walk me through what happened.”
I continued, “I was researching Romeo’s old cases and arrest reports when I discovered something in Romeo’s past and went there to discuss it with him. Eighteen years ago my brother, Brad Jansen, was in jail. He was murdered and no one was ever prosecuted. Romeo was his cellmate at the time.
When I arrived, Romeo let me in his condo and I could see he had been drinking. He had a glass of whiskey in hand and his eyes were like glass.
I told him I was preparing his case and came across an old case that could prove troublesome. I mentioned that he had a cellmate some years ago that died. He stood there thinking for a moment then gulped down his whiskey. He walked into the kitchen and I followed him. He stopped and twirled around, almost losing his balance, and said he did remember. His face lit up and he laughed. He turned back around and poured another glass of whiskey from the decanter.
He took another swig and a smirk spread across his mouth. I suppose the whiskey had provided some liquid courage because he started talking about how he was bulletproof, impervious, untouchable.
He told me ever since that happened eighteen years ago, he’s always escaped the clutches of the police. Not once have they been able to pin anything on him.
He then looked at me, his head listing back and forth from the drink, and let it slip: ‘that little shit cellmate back then was going to rat out my boss. I couldn’t let that happen. And if you let anyone know about it you’ll suffer the same fate.’
I told him that cellmate he killed had a name…Brad Jansen.
I waited for recognition. A look of horror spread across his face.
I said, ‘that’s right. He was my brother.’
I grabbed a kitchen knife out of the butcher block and stabbed him in the heart.”